Luke Combs apologized Wednesday for photos that have recently resurfaced showing him with symbols of the Confederacy, saying "there is no excuse for those images."
The photos, screenshots from a six-year-old music video that Combs appeared in with country rapper Ryan Upchurch, show the singer amid an array of Confederate battle flags, including one on a decal stuck to his guitar.
"I apologize for being associated with that," Combs, 30, told broadcasters attending the annual Country Radio Seminar.
"Hate is not a part of my core values, and it's not something that I consider a part of myself at all. I'm just looking … not to say, 'I'm so sorry, please forgive me.' I'm here to say, 'I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to get better.' I know that I'm a very highly visible member of the country music community right now, and I want to use that position for good and to say that people can change, and people do want to change, and I'm one of those people trying."
A native of North Carolina, Combs declared, "I'm from the South and I'm proud of that." And he added, in his younger days, the flag "was an image that I associated to mean something else."
But his views, he said during the live-streamed event, have significantly changed in recent years: "I've grown in my time as an artist, and as the world has changed drastically … I am now aware how painful that image can be to someone else. And no matter what I thought at the time … I would never want to be associated with something that brings so much hurt to someone else."
Combs was joined by fellow artist Maren Morris during the Q&A session on the issue of diversity in country music. Moderated by NPR music critic Ann Powers, the CMA's reigning male artist of the year and female artist of the year spent almost an hour in conversation, grappling with the need to bring more people of color into the genre.
Both Combs and Morris have recently released songs that address national divisions: Combs collaborated with bluegrass flatpicker Billy Strings on "The Great Divide," and Morris, 30, released a call for social action in "Better Than We Found It." In recent weeks, Morris also was among a handful of country artists who called out Morgan Wallen after he was captured on video using the N-word. Wallen has since apologized for his behavior, asking fans, "Don't defend me."
Morris received a backlash over her comments from some of those fans, who accused her of betraying country's family allegiance. But in the Q&A, she rejected the idea that "we protect our own" at any cost, and instead she urged artists to hold one another accountable for racial insensitivity.
"You can't control a human being, but you absolutely can let them know where you stand," the Texas native said. "I appreciate Morgan saying, like, 'quit defending me' to his fans because it's indefensible, and he knows that. We know that. All we can do is … hold our peers accountable. I don't care if it's awkward sitting down the row from you at the next award show. Call them out. … This whole, like, 'we're a family, we're protecting our own'? It's protecting White people. It's not protecting Black people. And that's the long and the short of it."
Like Combs, Morris said she grew up in a Southern state not fully understanding the racist underpinnings of the Confederate flag. She also said she suspected "a large majority of people that listen to country music don't know … the deeper meaning of what that flag signifies."
"Or," she added, "at least maybe that's hopeful, wishful thinking."
Morris urged country artists to use their clout to stand against the symbol, expressing particular distress over seeing Confederate flags displayed by fans at country music events.
"I don't want to play those festivals anymore," Morris said. "If you were a Black person, would you ever feel safe going to a show with those flying in the parking lot? No. I feel like the most powerful thing, as artists in our position right now, is to make those demands on large organizations, festivals, promoters. … That's one of the things we can do is say, 'No. I'm not doing this. Get rid of them.'"
Combs praised Morris for her courage to speak out, confessing he wrestles with saying "the wrong thing."
"Maren has obviously done a fantastic job of sharing her opinions and the things that she believes in," Combs said, "and I admire her a lot for that because that's a big risk in the climate of our genre. It's a hard thing to get on here and talk and have these tough conversations."
Both artists adamantly expressed their desire for more diversity in all aspects of the country music business. "Imagine over the last 50 years the songs that we haven't gotten to hear because we shut the door on a black person's face," Morris said. "Could have been song of the year. We'll never know."
Combs advocated that the music itself should be encouraging diversity.
"I think it starts with the music," he said, "and that's a painful process as an artist because you do have people that want to cut you down and say, 'you don't know what you're talking about,' or 'you should have said this instead of that.' But you just have to know where your heart is, and you have to know that you're doing it for the right reasons. And I think that's the thing that's beautiful about being an artist … You push yourself, and you create new boundaries for yourself."
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